HIGHTSTOWN: Residents raise concerns over police salaries

By Amy Batista, Special Writer
HIGHTSTOWN — Some concerned residents questioned an ordinance the Borough Council introduced regarding police salaries, including one particular salary that was going up almost 17 percent and the possibility of a chief of police in the near future, during its meeting on March 17.
“One thing that did surprise me in the salary ordinance was that while all of the salaries went down by about an average of 10 percent, and remained flat through the life of the contract, one went up by 17 percent,” said former Councilman Robert Thibault. “That was the lieutenant (Frank Gendron) from $103,000 this year to $117,000 for 2015.”
He said that the salary was retroactive.
“Why?” he said. “Why did the lieutenant get a nearly 17 percent increase given everything that has gone on with all the problems in the police department?”
He said a common factor for all of the problems that the borough has had over the years was eliminated with the retirement of the former Chief of Police James Eufemia.
“(Chief Eufemia’s) next in command, who has been responsible for internal affairs and discipline, has been there all this time and you are rewarding him with a 17 percent increase,” he said. “Why? You as a council have the ability to investigate anything in the borough and I urge you to investigate management of the police department.”
Mr. Thibault also brought up his lawsuit against the department.
Two traffic violations issued by then Detective Ben Miller, a member of the borough’s Police Department, against Robert Thibault were dismissed by West Windsor Municipal Court in December 2011, as previously reported.
Judge Mary Brennan ruled that Detective Miller’s search of Mr. Thibault’s driving records was “without probable cause” and the subsequent Aug. 6, 2010, traffic stop was politically motivated and violated his civil rights.
Former Hightstown Police Director James LeTellier filed a lawsuit against the borough that was settled in the amount of $60,000 in November 2014.
Mr. LeTellier was appointed as director on Feb. 6, 2012, for a three-year term and resigned on Nov. 4, 2014.
Mr. Thibault also questioned if there was a hidden agenda for Officer Frank Marchione who has been suspended with pay since Aug. 22, 2013.
Officer Marchione was charged in January for being “unfit for duty” and then four additional charges were filed on March 12.
“Now 10 years later what is going on here?” Mr. Thibault said. “What is the hidden agenda?”
He said council members have the power and the responsibility to investigate that.
Mr. Thibault said that he was surprised that no council members spoke on the ordinance because “there is a lot of good news for taxpayers in it.”
“Salaries go down an average about 10 percent,” he said.
According to the ordinance, a patrolman, once they are hired, would earn $42,000 while attending the academy and then $45,000 while on a probationary period.
Once their probationary period is complete they would be entitled to their contractual wage increase according to the collective bargaining agreement which starts at a base salary of $51,000.
He said it was a significant savings for the future for the borough.
“So that, coupled with the increased contributions to health benefits, most of them are going to be paying a third of their salary levels,” he said.
He said that the cost of their police department would go down significantly.
“The amount of money that we would have to pay East Windsor, if we outsource it, would also have to be significantly less,” he said, adding that they should take that into account when negotiating.
He said he would be interested in seeing what the projected costs are now for operating the police department when the budget is discussed.
“It’s not the same at it was four years ago or even two years ago,” he said.
Resident Scott Caster expressed some comments in regards to the “talks” the borough was having with East Windsor in regards to the police department as he also offered some advice being a former mayor.
“In all cases, the most optimum situation for any town would be, number one, to maintain some control and number two, pay a reasonable sum of money for services rendered,” said Mr. Caster. “It does cost, and that you shouldn’t be afraid to pay. Thirdly, there has to be a quality of service delivered.”
He then cautioned the council about letting this situation continue on for too much longer.
“The longer this goes on, it just looks like if we can’t put the deal together soon, how can we ever in the future survive the issues that are going to creep into the relationship that we are looking at and almost inviting,” he said.
He said they have personnel issues that they are addressing right now.
“I’m not afraid of personnel issues,” he said. “There’s always personnel issues. There always have been personnel issues, but we know how to address them and we know how to get through them.”
He said as bold as that might sound, ultimately it might actually come back to the council.
“I’m not saying this just to you all personally, but I mean as a body, and also as past mayors and councils,” he said. “Our lack of ability as mayors and councils to be watch dogs over departments (and) to choose wisely and we do make mistakes in hiring people. Our ability to manage the managers should be held accountable and not just point to the personnel and possibly suggest that one way out of the present situation is to look at East Windsor to help solve our problems.”
He said they have prolonged determinations for a year and a half that could’ve been made much earlier.
“If you opened up and looked underneath, if you looked between the lines, you will be surprised and shocked at what comes back to yourself and to this town,” he said. “I ask you to close these issues ASAP.”
The town is going to be worse off because of the council’s inability to put closure on these personnel issues, he added.
“Financially we are going to get hit,” he said. “There is only one path that we can go down and that’s the wrong path.”
Former Councilwoman Lynne Woods raised a concern over the promotion of the sergeants in the police department.
“Just one other issue that concerns me,” said Ms. Woods. “I know that when you were looking at doing promotions for sergeants in the police department and we went through the process of giving them exams as part of the process (and also) to look at the officers discipline files.”
She said they as a council were told that the discipline records were destroyed by the flood.
“There were no discipline records available,” she said. “So I’m just wondering now Patrolman Marchione’s survived, and if his survived, are the records really destroyed or were we lied to as a council at that time when we were trying to make those promotions. I find that very alarming.”
Detective Benjamin Miller was the selected at the time of the promotions to become a sergeant.
“You passed a resolution and I noticed that used the verbiage ‘chief of police,’” she said. “I would like council to clarify for us if this is a typo to be corrected or if there is an intention to open a chief of police (position) in the future in which case this seems like putting the cart before the horse.”
In the resolution it was mentioned under article XIV under vacation that all employees covered under this contract may sell back a maximum of 75 hours of vacation per year and with the approval of the chief of police or his/her designee, may carry over 60 hours of vacation into the succeeding year, according to resolution.
She said if that is the intention, she would caution them to not go with a chief of police.
“If you do, it is likely that you would go obviously with the highest ranking officer (in the department) and I would hope before you make any decisions like that you do a thorough investigation of his leadership of the police department. It doesn’t sound like things are going very well up there.”
During the mayor’s report, Mayor Lawrence Quattrone took a few minutes to reflect and comment on things the residents stated during the meeting.
“We are working towards a better Hightstown all the time,” said Mayor Quattrone. “You’re not talking to deaf ears believe me. A lot of times we can’t answer. A lot of things we can’t talk about but we do listen.”
He acknowledged Mr. Thibault’s comment on the cost of police being down.
“Mr. Thibault you are right the cost of police is down,” he said. “We are bringing in that second class officer you see tonight.”
Council approved a resolution appointing a Class II Special Officer Ryan Buck.
“We are working in that direction,” he said.
A public hearing will be held on the ordinance on April 6 at 7 p.m. at the Hightstown First Aid Building.